Be the Belly Without Blemish
Stephen Dedalus, brooding intellectual protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses, finds himself in a near constant state of mental upheaval over the action of others. In fact, the entire morning of June 16, 1904 is one continuous series of events where he empowers others to dictate how he lives his life. One roommate’s savage somniloquies disturbs him so much he cannot sleep. His other roommate’s coarse jests prove too sharp for his sensitive soul and he decides to abandon his own apartment rather than find a way to live amicably with the usurper. He completes his awful morning by deciding against visiting his aunt and uncle because he’s worried about what his alcoholic father, who so frequently abuses the two of them, will say if he does. Finally, imagining a way back to an easy state of innocence, he pictures a series of unsevered naval cords linking a web of humanity backwards together through history into Eden where he finds Eve’s “belly without blemish.”
Somewhere along that umbilical avenue he’d encounter our friend the old Prince Bolkonsky and he’d find a similar soul because the old Prince, too, can’t help but offer others power over himself.
Right from the start of today’s chapter we see this character flaw. The old Prince berates his daughter for making him quarrel with his son. He later loses his patience with his servants because they don’t satisfy his standards. Even the letter he receives from Prince Andrei about the progress of the war upsets him and “forces” him to alter his daily habits.
This is a flaw in the old Prince’s character we’ve long been familiar with this year. We’re also equally familiar by now with how the old Prince, and those of us like him, can address this flaw: We must remain ever mindful of those things that are within our control and those things that are without it. If, like Stephen Dedalus and the Old Prince Bolkonsky, we continue to dwell upon those things without our control we will continue to cede to others power over ourselves.
Your good faith is your own; your sense of shame is your own. Who, then, can deprive you of these? Who can restrain you from making use of them but yourself? And how do you do so? When you concern yourself with what is not your own, you lose what is your own.
Epictetus, The Discourses